As we enter the third wave of COVID-19, we are once again facing an uncertain future for leaders at all levels. One thing, though, is certain and that is the enormous impact of the pandemic on physician leaders. Physician leadership, which has always played a role in the alignment between hospital administration, medical staff, and the communities served, has become increasingly important as hospitals and health systems around the country embark on or continue efforts to strategically integrate with physicians. However, developing physician leaders can be a difficult undertaking. As we knew, before COVID-19, the skills that make a physician a fabulous doctor, don't necessarily correlate with being a successful leader.
The challenges resulting from the pandemic have overwhelmed even the most skilled and experienced leaders, whether they are physicians or not. The challenges demand navigating volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions — a situation often referred to as VUCA. Physician leaders today need to shift constantly and decide in an instant with limited data — to be agile and adaptive.
We share with you excerpts from our interviews with five experts in physician leadership to shed light on the challenges and potential opportunities for developing physician leaders in our new world.
Our Expert Panelists
Dr. Matthias Walz, MD, Professor and Chair, Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at UMass Memorial Healthcare
Rob Simpson, DSW, MSW, MPH, Consultant & Executive Coach at TLD Group (The Leadership Development Group)
Dr. Lindsay Lief, MD, Director of the Medical ICU at Weill Cornell NY Presbyterian, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College
Dr. Andrew Lawson, MD, FACEP, ACC, BCC, CPCC, CPDC Consultant & Executive Coach at TLD Group (The Leadership Development Group) and Building Champions, ER Physician
Dina Lichtman, PhD, Consultant & Executive Coach at TLD Group (The Leadership Development Group)
1. As we continue to face myriad challenges related to the pandemic, what do you expect will be different about the role of physician leaders moving forward?
Dr. Walz: “In order to set physician leaders up for success in managing teams who have experienced trauma during the pandemic response, additional tools and resources may be required. Physician/Caregiver coaching and emotional support is even more important now than it was before. Access to these resources is paramount and scarce at the same time, both financially, as well as in the form of human capital of capable and talented coaches.
It is clear that current demand exceeds the skill/capacity/supply for most physician leaders, and the result may be attrition of team members if the leader is not provided with the tools to offer timely and effective support for them. Projection of feelings (loss, anger, inadequacy, fear, etc.) by physician team members to physician leaders must be carefully monitored and identified. Then, strategies to address them without creating further resistance must be identified. Having a coach to assist in this process can be therapeutic for both physician members and team leaders.”
Dr. Lief: “Day-to-day — not much. But hopefully communities and the government will recognize the life-saving contributions from physician leaders and scientists over the last year and include them in important societal discussions about health equity, national security, and public health and social services.”
2. What are some key skills physician leaders will need to lead effectively in our “new” world?
Dr. Lief: “Physician leaders will need to continue working with the highest levels of management in thinking about big picture solutions to our healthcare problems, but at the same time listening to those on the front lines. Quality metrics, unfortunately, do not capture the challenges faced in patient care at the bedside or in the office.”
Dr. Lawson: “Physician leaders need to learn how to lead themselves through focusing on their own well-being. The key skill for physicians continues to be enhanced communication practices.”
3. Given the constraints on physicians’ time and energy, how should health system leadership think about developing physician leaders today?
Dr. Lawson: “Administration needs to continue to free physician time and energy by specific training and education around EMR management and practice workflow management issues.”
Dr. Lief: “Leaders should focus on using technology to offload burdensome compliance and administrative tasks from physicians. The goal should be to get physician leaders away from computers and back to the bedside, the operating room or the lab. Hospitals and large health systems should demand the creators of electronic medical records actually make their products user friendly (think iPhone).”
4. What development methods are likely to work best?
Rob Simpson, MPH: “Health systems that integrate physician leadership development programs in creating best clinical outcomes for patients will do best. Additionally, physician leaders must focus on developing skills in the management of equity and inclusion in an increasingly diverse workforce and patient environments. Teaching methods that include physician leaders learning in multidisciplinary formats that include non-physician leaders replicate the actual cross-cultural team environments that are increasingly represented in health systems. Having leaders work together on specific projects (quality or management-focused) creates the team stage dynamics and leadership skills required in vivo.”
Dr. Lawson: “This is a sacred space that continues to be difficult to create. I think it has to start with empathy and ensuring that physicians feel seen and heard.”
5. What can systems do to help create an environment for effective development?
Rob Simson, MPH: “‘Leaders are made not born,’ said Warren Bennis. Too often, health systems have made the mistake of not creating disciplined leadership development programs that create a recognition of the critical importance of a common leadership language to unite teams and providers in the mission of healthcare delivery.”
Dina Lichtman, PhD: “Understand that the environment needs to value what everyone does. Understand what support looks like (time off, positive recognition for the big and little things, empathy for all, not just patients, and what burnout looks like.”
Given the myriad challenges facing physician leaders today, here are three best practices for development:
1. Identify Physician Leaders
As we saw through the pandemic, physician leadership can take a variety of forms. One of the most common misconceptions in any organization is that leadership is associated with particular roles and only certain titles. The truth is leadership is not something that just happens. Nor is it something that requires a specific role or title. Rather, leadership is a choice. And it is a choice that involves values, vision, voice, and action. Physician leaders that show promise through their involvement in inspiring others should be encouraged to seek out larger leadership roles.
2. Cultivate Potential Leaders
Leadership is a mindset — the notion that we all have opportunities to influence and inspire others. Involving administration in cultivating leaders is critical to ensure an aligned organization that performs as efficiently as possible. Cultivating strong leaders that share the same vision as the organization can help to foster integration efforts.
3. Provide Development Opportunities
Finally, at every level of a physician leaders' involvement in the organization, they should be provided with development opportunities so they can be effective. Providing opportunities to create custom designed in-house programs can help to advance physician leadership skills.
The pandemic has forced physician leaders to take a hard look at their skills and capabilities. In order to effectively manage and support their teams in this tumultuous time for healthcare systems, physicians need to prioritize being adaptable and agile. Now is the time to focus on leadership development to ensure your team’s success beyond 2021 and the effects of the pandemic. If you’re looking for leadership development opportunities, you’ve come to the right place.
Reach out to our team of expert consultants and coaches today to jumpstart your leadership development.